When my son was around two-years-old, I was taking a 19th-century American Literature course and discovered the work of Kate Chopin. I had taught a few of her short stories to my high school students, and I make sure I teach her today to my college students, but at that time, it was her representation of motherhood in The Awakening that spoke volumes to me when nothing else and no one else in my surroundings did. I suppose this is one of the reasons I love literature: it crosses boundaries of space and time to reach the shores of readers’ experiences, dispel fears, and make us feel connected.
A Victorian writer, Kate Chopin reached out to me about motherhood from the late 1890s when I was drowning in the confusion of being a mother and accomplishing what I needed for myself. I was choking with the want of giving to my son and feeding my own needs at the same time – but the message being sent to me was clear: mothers sacrifice themselves for their children; those who don’t are selfish.
I discovered the heart of my conflict with motherhood in Kate Chopin’s writing. Upon being awakened to the fact that there was more to her than being a wife and a mother, Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, advises women from the pages of the past: “I will give my life for my children, but I will not sacrifice myself for them.” She will protect her children from danger, throw her body in front of impending death to save them, but she will not give up her dreams for them.
I read these lines prior to being a mother, when I was in undergraduate school, but I never thought much about them, my eyes skimming the verbose and lofty language reminiscent to Victorian writing with impatience just to get to the ending and see what happened with her young lover. As a mother, however, reading these lines freed me, awakened me in the same manner Chopin’s heroine had been awakened; they summarized how I felt as a new mother and as a woman who felt compelled to write, to work, but was impeded by the self-sacrificing motif that characterizes motherhood.
Edna lived at a different time – a time that demarcated and confined her based on her gender. She was restricted as to what she could accomplish, and at the end, she killed herself because her awakening was stone-walled by the oppression of Victorian conventions that stunted women’s potential. In her world, she could not be independent, or an artist, without constantly being reminded that she was also a mother – and that motherhood defined the entirety of her existence.
We are modern women; we don’t have to commit suicide to have our freedom, we don’t have to give up our children to pursue our dreams, and we don’t have to give up our dreams in order to raise our children. But we do have to find a balance between motherhood and independence, mothering and working, and this is often an undertaking because the voices of our culture tell us otherwise.
“Accept that this is what you have to do until your kids are in school full-time,” they tell us. “Then you will see; it will get easier for you. Women do this all the time. They take care of the kids until they’re old enough. And then the mothers do their thing. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but it’s how it has always been.”
And so we submit. We put our careers on hold to care for our children. We dream about our dreams at night, fatigued and numb, only to wake up in the morning to take care of the needs of others – little persons who look to us with love and hope and unencumbered trust. And we feel guilty for wanting more – for wishing we had more time away from them to feed our own aching needs. Needs which supersede motherhood and domestic obligations that we are bound to until we are in our forties or our kids are away in college. Whichever comes first.
Edna Pontellier’s words ring loud and true for those of us who will, like her, die for our children, kill for them, but refuse to lay aside our dreams, for them or for anyone else. Loving our children is unconditional, but we don’t have to give up our entire persons to be mothers, or put our lives on hold for them. Men don’t have to make these kinds of sacrifices, and neither should women. Not today. If the feminist movement of the seventies accomplished anything, albeit imperfect, it has given women the freedom to do it all, if that is what they wish. And this is what I wanted: I wanted to be a mother, a writer, and a teacher, and I wanted to be these things at the same time.